Hearing Comes in Advance of Likely Supreme Court Vacancy
The Senate Rules Committee is holding a hearing on Thursday, June 5, to discuss a resolution by Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist that would effectively eliminate the use of the filibuster for all nominations requiring the Senate’s approval. Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott has recently called for an even more radical step by Senate Republicans – the so called “nuclear option” – which would entail the naked abuse of power to overturn longstanding Senate rules that protect against the abuse of power by narrow majorities.
“These proposals reflect short-sighted partisanship at its worst,” said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. “The Senate was intended by the nation’s founders to be the more deliberative body, the place where people in the minority could provide a check on the power of the majority. Republican leaders seem to be so intent on pushing every single Bush-nominated ideologue onto the federal courts that they are entertaining the idea of trashing the rules, tradition and role of the Senate in our constitutional system.”
“What is the crisis that justifies such extreme measures?” asked Neas. “More than 120 of President Bush’s nominees have been confirmed for the federal courts, and only two have been filibustered. The vacancy rate on the federal courts is the lowest it has been in 13 years.”
Neas said the current political situation – with one party controlling the White House and Congress in spite of a narrowly divided national electorate – demonstrates why our constitutional framework was designed as a system of checks and balances. The filibuster is virtually the only tool that Senate Democrats have at their disposal to try to force the administration and the Republican Senate majority to engage in bipartisan consultation, compromise, and cooperation on judicial nominations. The Bush administration has resisted this simple solution to the so-called crisis on the courts.
Neas noted that Frist’s proposal applies only to nominations, not legislation. “That makes no sense, particularly with respect to judicial nominations,” said Neas. “If it is legitimate to require 60 votes to reach final action on legislation that can be changed by any future Congress, it is even more appropriate when considering lifetime appointments to powerful positions on the federal judiciary.
Neas said the timing of Lott’s hearing is an indication that Senate GOP leaders are trying to set the stage to eliminate any possibility that a controversial nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court could be blocked by a filibuster later this year.
“One or two more far-right justices on the Supreme Court could do immense damage to Americans’ constitutional rights, freedoms, and legal protections,” said Neas. “The most extreme elements of the president’s political base see the Supreme Court as the big payoff for their support of the administration. So they are clamoring for the Senate to grease the skids for potential Supreme Court nominees.”
Neas noted that the role of the filibuster has been defended in the past by a wide range of conservative and right-wing leaders and groups, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, political commentator George Will, and the Heritage Foundation. More recently, newspapers and columnists from across the political spectrum have editorialized against GOP leaders’ threats to “go nuclear.”